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“Death Walks on High Heels” (1971) and “Death Walks at Midnight” (1972): Shared Cast and Crew Makes for an Entertaining Pair of Films for Giallo Fans and Newcomers

The Death Walks Twice Limited Edition DVD/Blu Ray set from Arrow Films collects two of Italian director Luciano Ercoli early 1970’s giallo films (Italian thrillers), Death Walks on High Heels (La Morte Cammina con i Tacchi Alti) (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (La Morte Accarezza a Mezzanotte) (1972). Along with his fellow producer Alberto Pugliese, Ercoli reassembles most of his production team from his previous feature, his directorial debut, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Le Foto Proibite di una Signora per Bene) (1970). Both films share the primary screenwriters, Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén Velasco (joined by Dino Verde (DWoHH) and Guido Leoni (dialogue) + Sergio Corbucci (story) (DWaM)). The presence of cinematographer Fernando Arribas and editor Angelo Curi helps to unite the two films visually, while a common cast, headed by Ercoli’s wife Nieves Navarro (aka Susan Scott) provides a further connection. While both films have many of the trademarks of the giallo genre; e.g. stylish cinematography, gloved killers, beautiful women in peril; they also have more traditional, albeit still beautiful, camerawork and somewhat logical resolutions. This gives the films a bit of an old-fashioned mystery sensibility which makes them more accessible to viewers unfamiliar with the tropes of giallo.

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Death Walks on High Heels opens with the murder of a man in his train compartment by that giallo staple, the gloved unknown assailant. The victim turns out to be an international jewel thief who recently pulled off the theft of a stash of diamonds. His daughter Nicole Rochard (Nieves Navarro), a high-class Parisian striptease artist, denies all knowledge of the location of the stolen diamonds when queried by the authorities. Living with her boyfriend Michel (Simón Andreu), she continues performing in spite of receiving anonymous calls that threaten violence if she does not reveal the location of the jewels. Spooked by an attack by a masked and very blue eyed assailant, Nicole skips out on her boyfriend to head to England with Dr. Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), an older British doctor who is an ardent admirer of her act. Living idyllically in her lover’s seaside cottage, Nicole is unaware that sinister forces are watching her and looking for their opportunity to seize the diamonds, if she indeed knows where they are. Twists and turns are accompanied by a number of murders and murder attempts, letting the viewers piece together the evidence as to who is behind the events. Looking in the murders and misdeeds are Inspector Baxter (Carlo Gentili) of Scotland Yard and his young assistant Bergson (Fabrizio Moresco). In the end, the details of the plot are laid out for the audience in a very satisfying fashion (something that does not always occur in a giallo). Death Walks at Midnight finds Nieves Navarro playing Valentina, a famous fashion model who has agreed to take an experimental drug for a magazine story. Simón Andreu is back, this time as Giò Baldi, a somewhat slimy reporter, who is the one writing the drug story. While under the influence of the drug, Valentina looks out her apartment window and thinks she witnesses a gruesome murder. Once the story of “Model Takes Drugs, Sees Murder” comes out in the magazine, nobody believes Valentina, attributing it to a drug induced hallucination. When she claims that she is being stalked and attacked by the killer, her boyfriend Stefano (Pietro Martellanza) humors her and tries to give her the benefit of the doubt. Police Inspector Serino (the returning Carlo Gentili) remains skeptical. As disappearances and bodies mount, conspiracies are revealed and the truth is revealed (though perhaps in not quite as coherent manner as the first film).

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Part of the fun of watching companion films, such as these, is to see the parallels and differences between characters played by the same actors. Nieves Navarro is the focus of both films, but the characters she plays are quite different. In Death Walk on High Heels, she plays Nicole Rochard, a classy stripper and daughter of the murdered jewel thief. Unfortunately, she is not given much to do as Nicole besides dance, strip, and be oblivious to the surrounding threats. She does fight back against her attacker at one point early in the film, but for the rest of the time, she is not really given much agency. It is almost as if she is the film’s primary McGuffin instead of the missing jewels. This is a shame because Navarro is wasted as “eye candy” when she is more than capable of playing stronger, more fully realized characters. In contrast, Navarro’s character in Death Walks at Midnight, Valentina, is a strong and vital character. She is one of the main forces driving the plot forward. Unlike the character of Nicole in the previous film, Valentina not only notices the threats and mystery, but she actively investigates the strange goings on as well. If it were not for her actions, much of the story would not occur. This is in contrast to her previous character, Nicole, who is mainly just swept along by events she barely notices. Valentina is strong in a physical sense as well. When it comes to threats, Valentina more than holds her own, fighting back against all manner of creeps and killers. She is given some nice action sequences here. More cast members from the previous film make appearance in a variety of roles – some less recognizable than others. Carlo Gentili takes the role of police inspector in both films, providing comic relief, but not in the stereotypical bumbling, ineffectual way expected. Gentili’s inspectors are more than competent, and both are key to how the films play out. Instead, the humor comes from their deadpan and matter-of-fact way of handling unusual situations. Other shared cast play similar and somewhat thematically linked characters: Simón Andreu (boyfriend/reporter), Luciano Rossi (creepy blond guy/creepy blond guy), Claudie Lange (wife/wife), Manuel Muñiz (fishmonger/porter), Fabrizio Moresco (police/creepy guy.

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Both Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, share many of the traits common to giallo films, but they also manage to maintain a link to more traditional mysteries / thrillers at the same time. One of the hallmarks associated with giallo is the use of stylish and sometimes very stylized camera work. While cinematographer Fernando Arribas’ camera work on both of these films is polished and quite beautiful, it only occasionally veers into the highly stylized angles associated with the genre. These giallo-esque shots are used sparingly, but effectively.  Arribas seems to take his inspiration more directly from some of the early influences on giallo, such as Hitchcock’s Rear Window, than from contemporary genre films. In both films, there are a number of quite effective long-distance shots, where the viewer witnesses events from the point of view of another character. Key scenes are viewed at a distance through half-shrouded windows, helping to obscure just what may be going on and just who is doing what to whom, and enhancing the mystery. The scores (Stelvio Cipriani (DWoHH), Gianni Ferrio  (DWaM)) are the typical mix of groovy and lounge-inspired melodies common to early 1970’s giallo cinema, which help firmly ground the films in their era in a fun way. In addition to the visual and aural links to giallo, both movies utilize some of the common giallo tropes. Beautiful women threatened by mysterious, gloved killers are central to both films. While the killer in Death Walks on High Heels uses fairly common methods, e.g. knives, the murderer in Death Walks at Midnight uses a weapon that fits right in with the more creative ones of the genre – a spiked metal gauntlet.

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Some giallo films veer into supernatural/mystical territory and others are stylish slashers; Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight are closer to more realistic mystery films. Head-scratching “where did that come from” endings are almost a cliche in giallo. Instead of going this route, Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight both try for more traditional and logically consistent, though still convoluted, resolutions, with varied degrees of success. The final reveal of the killer or killers in Death Walks on High Heels is beautifully done. It is one of those moments where all it takes is a small look, and the audience and the characters know the truth of the matter. Granted, the villain(s) of the piece go on to spell out their plans, even including brief flashbacks to the action. In this case, it manages not to feel spoon fed, but instead feels like a confirmation of what the viewer is able to put together from the clues in the film. There are a couple of little inconsistencies, but, overall, it provides a very satisfying resolution to the film. Death Walks at Midnight tries to pull off a similar reveal, but it is not quite as successful as the earlier film. As with its companion piece, the villain(s) of the film fills in the audience on the details of the plot. In this case, even with the evidence provided throughout the story, it still feels thrown together. The motivations for at least one key character, while they are explained, just do not ring true. The writers try too hard to make the resolution logically consistent for it to register as a typical giallo nonsensical ending. Luckily, logical endings are not a requirement for an enjoyable giallo, even if the writers are trying for one.

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Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight are two entertaining examples of early 1970’s Italian cinema. The Death Walks Twice Limited Edition DVD/Blu Ray set from Arrow Films presents these films in beautifully restored editions; the Blu Ray versions truly are stunning. The films are satisfying entries in the genre for giallo fans, who will appreciate the genre touches. At the same time, the fact that these films steer clear of the more surreal aspects of giallo helps to keep them accessible for non-fans as well, providing an introduction for those new to the genre. Shared cast and crew add interest to the pair of films and make for a rather enjoyable giallo double-feature.

Death Walks on High Heels  (1971) 3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

Death Walks at Midnight  (1972) 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Death Walks Twice is now available from Arrow Films.

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Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.
Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.